Whose English Is Best?
As a student I remember how thrilled we were to learn about the various versions of the English language. The fact that it is the or a state language in several countries does not mean that people speak it in the same way. While the written words may be easily recognizable, the speech may differ greatly. We learned RP, Received Pronunciation. When we first heard Americans speak we were quite shocked. Not only do they seem to introduce the sound /r/ where it isn't, like in a phrase "You berra go", many words and expressions are different. A friend from New York formulated it jokingly once, "The British speak with their mouths pursed and the Americans do it with their mouths wide open!" In New Zealand it seemed to me that they have diphthongs where I would say just a long vowel, so I heard "Zeyland" not /zi:land/. In Canada sometimes I would hear a long vowel instead of a diphthong, as in "oot" (out). The melodic intonation one often hears in Hong Kong needs some getting used to. The singsong African tunes, the way many consonants are pronounced in Africa and India also cause some confusion at first. An Australian friend deadpanned, " When I sigh sigh I don't mean sigh I mean sigh". Indeed, when a colleague returned from an extended stay in Australia and asked a simple question, "What die is it to die?", I knew what he meant thanks to my own vast experience. And so on.
I know many adults in my country whose written English is perfect; they read well. They also speak fluently, but many sounds are mispronounced. "Zis"instead of "this", "ees" not "is", and the universal "wot" for word, what, ward, world, wart are but a few examples of the typical pronunciation mistakes which make it rather hard to understand the oral speech.
Yes, multiculturalism and multilinguism are a reality. When my own children went to school in New York, we counted ten languages spoken in the families of our twenty six-year-olds. Pupils had no problems understanding each other and easily translated for their teachers what their Japanese or Mexican classmates said. The younger the children are the quicker they pick up any language: by the end of the first term there were no barriers. Many parents on the other hand spoke no English.
In my own area a university hired some African EL teachers and boasted that now the students would learn English from native speakers. I confess it was a little odd hearing Siberians speak English with an African accent. Their writing and reading skills were really good, but they confessed that they could not understand an authentic British or American recording.
The big question then is, what variety of English do we mean? Which skills should come to the fore? If a person reads and writes well, does this always mean that they really know EL better than their classmates? And true, sometimes the newcomers have a higher level of English than their new schoolmates. But so do the strongest students, winners of various contests and project participants. School is not just one subject. A person may be really good at languages but really bad at sciences, and vice versa.
An activity that helps understanding and blending is a discussion lesson at which students talk about their cultures and places of origin, and share their own experiences. A round table is a great activity which helps every child express their views, with the teacher's tactful guidance. For instance I would write down a figure on the board, e.g. "There are about 185 countries in the world". A student would say, "We speak Spanish and English at home but we do not speak 183 other languages!" Another student would continue with other languages. I would suggest that we appoint a Chronicler, someone who would record the number of languages mentioned. Then we would have a tally at the end of a lesson and talk about the ways human beings can achieve understanding in spite of the multiple languages spoken around the world.